On July 15, 1949, Hitotsubashi University freshman Sakuji Horikoshi was returning to his dormitory when he hopped off a late-night train at Mitaka Station in western Tokyo to have some quick noodles. He suddenly found himself in the middle of a disaster zone.
An unmanned train started moving and plowed through the track-end bumper, proceeding into the station and adjacent structures, leaving six people dead and around 20 others injured.
“The station filled with a roar. It was like the air raids and screams I heard during the war,” said Horikoshi, who narrowly escaped the crash. “The scene was simply hell.”
He and others, including station workers, tried to rescue people, “but, oddly enough, U.S. military police quickly arrived and kept us away from the accident site.”
Later, 10 union members of the now-defunct Japanese National Railways, nine of whom were members of the Japanese Communist Party, were arrested and charged over the crash, which became known as the Mitaka Incident.
Prosecutors alleged the 10, including non-JCP member Keisuke Takeuchi, conspired to cause the runaway train. The unionists were claimed to have been angered by JNR’s plan for massive dismissals during the Allied Occupation. Many in the railway’s union ranks were communist-leaning, to the displeasure of the government and Occupation authorities.
The Tokyo District Court rejected the conspiracy theory and only convicted Takeuchi, sentencing him to life in prison.
The Tokyo High Court later overruled that punishment and sentenced Takeuchi to hang. The Supreme Court upheld this verdict in 1955.
Although Takeuchi confessed several times that he was behind the crash, he later did an about-face and claimed his innocence. He filed a retrial appeal with the high court in 1956 but died of a brain tumor in January 1967 at the age of 45. The case against him was subsequently closed.
Over the years the incident faded from memory.
Horikoshi, 80, who went on to become a reporter at the daily Asahi Shimbun, said recently, “I rarely remembered the Mitaka Incident, except when I rushed to fatal accident sites or crime scenes to cover them.”
But the incident is not forgotten, particularly by Takeuchi’s oldest son, Kenichiro, 68, who is preparing to file for a Tokyo High Court retrial next spring to clear his father’s name.
Tokyo-based lawyer Shoji Takamizawa, 68, who is representing the son, became interested in the crash a few years ago while studying judicial records of the case. Among the documents was one detailing the high court’s decision, which terminated the appeal process five months after Takeuchi’s death while suggesting the documents submitted by his counsel would remain valid.
“The high court had already started examining the documents before Mr. Takeuchi’s death and was ready to interview him,” Takamizawa said.
The high court said relatives could be entitled to pursue the Takeuchi retrial appeal by referring to the submitted documents when reopening the case, Takamizawa said, adding he took up the case because of that available data.
The documents include one containing testimony from a third party who said Takeuchi was washing in a communal JNR bath at the time of the crash. This testimony was not weighed during his trial.
Takamizawa, who is leading four other lawyers in the retrial bid, also plans to present new testimony from a traffic engineering expert who plans to issue a written opinion that it would have been impossible to activate the train in the way stated in the court’s final judgment on Takeuchi.
“The ruling on Mr. Takeuchi said the disaster was brought about only by him, but the upcoming paper will show at least two people had to have been involved in getting the train moving because its mechanical workings couldn’t be manipulated by just one person,” Takamizawa said.
In summer 1949, two other mysterious incidents occurred involving the JNR. JNR President Sadanori Shimoyama was fatally run over by a train in Tokyo on July 5. Then on Aug. 17, a derailment occurred near Matsukawa Station in Fukushima Prefecture that was blamed on sabotage. The crash killed three JNR workers and led to the indictment of 20 labor union activists, who were all eventually acquitted.
Shimoyama’s death and the Matsukawa derailment remain mysteries, but the parties seeking to reopen the Mitaka Incident case hope to glean what really happened. Isamu Tashiro, 84, is among them.
Tashiro, one of the 10 defendants in the crash, believes he and his comrades were targeted as part of a clampdown on union protests over the planned mass firings.
“But I didn’t know Mr. Takeuchi very well at the time, and I didn’t understand why he was arrested with us (because he was not a JCP member).”
The accused were interrogated from early morning to late every evening and had to wear prison uniforms “so we would conform to the prosecutors’ trumped-up story,” Tashiro said.
“Even now, I don’t understand why he repeatedly changed his statements, despite my calls to him during the legal battle to work together for acquittal,” Tashiro said. “I hope the truth will be uncovered through the retrial.”
Takamizawa said Takeuchi’s flip-flopping was a common feature of involuntary confessions.
“It was partly because he was driven by a sense of hopelessness amid harsh, prolonged and coercive interrogations by prosecutors . . . we will argue in the retrial appeal that he did not confess voluntarily,” the lawyer said.
Horikoshi, the ex-reporter, suggested the Mitaka Incident, and probably the Shimoyama and Matsukawa cases as well, were crimes cooked up by authorities during the Occupation to disgrace the communists.
Japan and the United States had begun a crackdown on communist activities at that time as the Cold War heated up.
“I believe the shadow in our history must be cleared and I hope I can contribute to it as much as possible by sharing what I saw at Mitaka Station,” said Horikoshi, who has spoken about his brush with the 1949 incident at various public gatherings in recent years.
As the son of the defendant in the notorious case, Kenichiro Takeuchi has gone through one hardship after another in an effort to clear his father’s name. He said he cannot forget the exhausted face of his mother, who always kept herself busy trying to prove her husband’s innocence while raising five children.
“I have cared about my father as if he has been in front of me all this time . . . I hope the retrial will make up for the sorrow of my father as well as my mother,” he said.